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Friday, February 17, 2023

5 Simple Strategies for Coping with Grief and Finding Meaning; A Personal Story.

7 am May 13, 2014. 

I was sitting joyfully on the reading table in my tiny student room at Ekosodin (University of Benin), answering my mother's phone call and listening to her sing birthday songs to me when a notification of an incoming call beeped in my ear. It was my cousin IK. After talking with my mum, my phone rang again. It was IK calling a second time to wish me happy birthday. 

Image of a person sitting alone and dealing with grief
Image of a lady sitting alone on a beach

I don't usually get to speak to him on the phone on occasions like my birthday; I wonder if he remembers my birthday anyways. But it does not even matter to me. He's my favorite cousin; he is intelligent, young (though much older than myself) and very accommodating. Sharing your problems with IK brings an unusual calmness and tranquility to your troubled soul. He will never judge anyone. 

I remember when I was suspended in my early senior secondary school days. He was in law school Enugu campus then. After serving my suspension, I recall that he told my Dad to stay home while he took me back to school. According to him, he understood me more than my parents, and honestly, he did. 

At the principal's office, when our "sins" were read out, some parents/guardians lost their cool and descended on their children, beating them to stupor; the same thing my father would've done. My cousin was all smiles throughout the session. He later took me to a corner and advised me before letting me return to my hostel. Those words of advice from him were without any judgment. He earned ample space in my heart since then, and I shunned most of my delinquencies, perhaps to make him proud. 

On this special birthday of mine, he was in my Father‟s house in Nsukka, which was a little strange to me. I asked why he had left his job and family in Lagos to be at my house at that time of the year. He told me he was just sick and needed to get some special attention at home. His mother, my ever-glowing and smiling aunt had just died a few months back from “just being sick.” 

I was earnestly worried about this sudden sickness that warranted him to be in Nsukka at that point. Still, I didn't want to raise any alarm. IK didn't sound very ill, and my mother would tell me later that he was responding well to treatment even though the sickness was strange. Why worry, then? 

3.40am May 16th, 2014. 

My phone rang out loud in the dead hours of the morning. It was my sister, Ada. I picked up, but I couldn't hear clearly from her end. After minutes of her weeping and of me sweating and asking what the matter was, she managed to mumble the cruelest three words of my life "IK is dead.‟ 

My phone fell from my hand, and my breathing became difficult. How did this even happen? But my mum said he was responding to treatment. He didn't even sound very sick the last time we spoke. My chest was hurting, and my throat was burning; the air seemed to have ceased, and my fan was blowing dust instead. 

I was devastated, broken and terrified. The fragility of life feared me the more. The fact that you can speak with someone this minute and not be able to speak with them ever again broke my heart. But I was calm; I wanted to handle this like a man.

The following day I saw myself rushing to school to meet up with a 7.30 am class. The journey to school was a cold one. I was sad at everything – lecturers, lectures, life and even God. I couldn't understand why people laughed and smiled when my world stopped. 

We don't know how we'll grieve until the grief comes. I was least prepared to lose a dear cousin with whom I had planned life. The weight of my grief was heaviest in the morning; it seemed like I would wake up and realize it was a lie. Instead, I woke up every day to the stark reality that IK was truly gone, and I would not see him again for the rest of my life. I started to dread sleep. 

9.30 am May 20, 2014 

After finishing an early pharmacognosy class, I had a terrible headache and decided to go to the university health center to get some painkillers. The attending nurse checked my blood pressure as part of the routine before sending me to the doctor. Her eyes bulged when the reading appeared on the sphygmomanometer. I saw the reading too, and it scared me as well. An average blood pressure of 186/107 mmHg for a young boy in his early 20s should call for concern. 

The doctor insisted on admitting me for monitoring. Other tests were carried out, and I was treated accordingly. That night in the hospital, I slept peacefully for the first time in a while, but with the aid of sleeping pills. The nurses wrote on my chart that I talked and cried almost throughout my sleep. This report drew the doctor's attention at the ward round in the morning, and he asked me if I was going through any emotional challenges. I explained every detail to him. 

12.10pm May 21st, 2014. 

I was discharged and referred to the guidance and counseling unit to seek psychological help. My experience with counselors at the guidance and counseling unit eventually ushered in what I now know as practical steps to managing grief. It is not just a unique, concise and elaborate rendition of all Mrs. Obakpolo (who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology) taught me about managing grief but also a trusted approach that I have utilized to drive outstanding results. 

Practical Steps to Managing Grief. 

1. Allow yourself to grieve. 

One crucial way of managing grief is to allow yourself to grieve; don't shut down your feelings and emotions. Part of my greatest undoing was bottling up my emotions and believing I could handle the grief. I wanted to be the man. 

But in managing grief, you don't need to be the man or try to be strong. Express your emotions in a less harmful way. Give yourself a chance to feel the grief properly; your emotional health will experience significant relief eventually. 

2. Reflect on positive memories 

When managing grief of any sort, whether the loss of a loved one or even from a broken marriage, reflecting on the positive experiences shared with the person can help in the cognitive modification of negative feelings with positive ones. 

You can attempt one or more of the following; 

  1. Write a letter to the deceased (or absent) loved one, telling them everything you love about them. 
  2. Make a list of what is good in your current life and place it where it can easily catch your eye. 
  3. Write affirming and positive statements that reassure you that your problem is only temporary. For example, you can acknowledge that you're currently in a dark part of your life, but you will move forward and that there are other exciting things ahead for you. 

3. Talk to someone 

We often underestimate psychotherapy's place in managing grief in our society. I probably would've drowned in my grief if I wasn't referred to a counselor. In managing grief, try not to shut everyone out. Talk to someone with listening ears, even if it's not a therapist. You can surely start healing from there. 

4. Understand grief as being a part of life. 

Sometimes when we grieve, we often ask God why me? But other questions that beg for answers are - Why not you? Who else do you want it to be? In managing grief, first understanding that it is a part of life and can happen to anyone is essential to healing. Grief is not age specific or reserved for a particular population; it is part of life. 

5. Prepare for the worst but don't be pessimistic. 

One of the things that broke me was the realization that with just one phone call, my life could turn around in the wrong way. The thought alone disorganized me. But along the line in therapy, I learned that regardless of how much time I put into worrying about these things, one day, the unthinkable can happen, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. 

Therefore, instead of getting sick with worry, I could make more efforts to create better memories with my loved ones, something that we will all cherish when anyone is absent. Preparing for the worst is not always a pessimistic approach to problem-solving. In fact, managing grief can be more than just a coping technique; it can also recognize triggers and ultimately set patterns for handling future grief. 

Have you ever gone through a grieving process? Kindly share with me how you handled it using the comment section below.

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